The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The rich fool

Hear, again, the parable about his barns and your soul

As I get older, Jesus' parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21) gets harder and harder to deal with.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought, "What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?" Then he said, "I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' " But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

When I was younger, I found it easy to rail against being overly concerned with filling our barns and storing up treasure for tomorrow but not rich toward God. It seems I wasn't alone in my thinking. I heard on the news recently that 53 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. Economists wish we would put a little more energy into filling up our barns.

In all honesty, we're worse off than the rich man in Jesus' parable. He was storing for the future, saving for a rainy day, providing for his old age. Our greed is different. We want to "relax, eat, drink and be merry" now, despite the fact that we don't "have ample goods laid up for many years." Rather than hoarding for the future, we've got to have it all now — the best, the biggest, the fastest, the most.

Our greed isn't about hoarding for tomorrow: It's about having it all today. But those words from God still cause us to swallow hard, at least for a moment. "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"

We all know people who found themselves in tragic situations — and all they have amounts to nothing: the freak accident, the terminal or debilitating illness, the fracture of the family, the loss of a child, the attack of addiction or abuse, the victimization of crime, unexpected death. "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"

Yes, these words from on high give us pause. But we soon tell ourselves, again, that it's demoralizing to live as if we're going to die "this very night." We have to take our chances.

But what if Jesus is pointing out something more sinister, more inevitable? What if, rather than pointing out something that might happen, Jesus is pointing out something that will happen? What if it wasn't God demanding the rich man's life? Notice that God doesn't say, "This very night I demand your life of you." God says, "This very night your life is being demanded of you." What if, instead of God, the rich man's barns are demanding his life?

How can the rich man's barns demand his life? Whether it's hoarding for tomorrow or having it all today, filling, maintaining and protecting our barns is demanding work.

Demands of our barns

An abundance of possessions can end up demanding our whole life. The big house never really becomes a home because we're never there but always at work. Our kids have everything, except time to be together as a family. In our most significant relationships, we get so caught up in keeping up that we lose track of intimacy and the delight in one another that brought us together. Our work becomes no longer a calling or a vocation, just a way to make money. We no longer know, let alone like, who we are. That is how our life is lost to the demands of our barns.

Jesus' parable and God's pronouncement aren't a judgment but a warning. "Take care!" Jesus says. "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life doesn't consist in the abundance of possessions" (12:15). "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (12:20).

When we attempt to find life by enslaving ourselves to our possessions, we wind up dead — not because God turns God's back on us but because we empty ourselves of all the real life that God gives. On the cross Jesus gave the world real life. In his resurrection Jesus made that life eternal. In baptism Jesus gave this new and eternal life to us.

The challenge here isn't to abandon our barns or to give away our goods. It's harder than that: It is to trust our security — our future and the quality of our life today — to the life that God in Christ gives and not to our stock portfolios, our Roth IRAs and all the stuff that we need to live. We need to plan for tomorrow, yes. We also need to have faith for tomorrow.

The older we get, the harder this parable gets because we do worry about the future. Still, Jesus reminds us that our future can't be secured by building bigger barns where we store up more for ourselves. Those barns will end up demanding our life and leaving us empty. Will we who hear this parable receive God's involvement as an abrasive interruption of our plans — as the Rich Fool did — or will we invite God in with trust and openness?


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June issue

JUNE issue:

Taking charge: Leaders under 40